Language and Culture Training:

Opportunities Exist to Improve Visibility and Sustainment of Knowledge and Skills in Army and Marine Corps General Purpose Forces

GAO-12-50: Published: Oct 31, 2011. Publicly Released: Oct 31, 2011.

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The Department of Defense (DOD) has emphasized the importance of developing language skills and knowledge of foreign cultures to meet current and future needs and is investing millions of dollars to provide language and culture predeployment training to its general purpose forces. DOD has also noted that such training should be viewed as a long-term investment and that training and personnel systems should better account for the knowledge and skills of service members acquired through training to help manage its forces. The committee report accompanying a proposed bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 (H.R. 5136) directed GAO to review language and culture training for Army and Marine Corps general purpose forces. For this report, GAO evaluated the extent to which these services (1) captured information in training and personnel systems on the completion of language and culture predeployment training and proficiency gained from training and (2) developed plans to sustain language skills acquired through predeployment training. GAO analyzed service documents and interviewed cognizant officials.

The Army and Marine Corps have documented some information at the unit level for service members who completed language and culture predeployment training, but the services have not fully captured information within service-level training and personnel systems on service members who completed training or their corresponding proficiency. DOD and service guidance require the services to document language and culture training completion and proficiency gained from training in service-level systems. However, GAO identified several factors that limited the services' ability to implement this guidance. For example, the Army's primary training system did not have data fields for all mandatory language and culture tasks and, as a result, units were unable to document the completion of this training. In addition, while the Army collects some language proficiency data within its primary personnel system, the Army considers these data unreliable because of weaknesses in its approach to collecting them. To improve the accuracy of information within this system, the Army established a task force in January 2011, which has identified a number of key tasks and is at varying stages of completing its work. The Marine Corps did not document language and culture predeployment training completion in any servicewide training or personnel system and a system has not been designated for this purpose. Further, the Marine Corps had not required marines who completed significant language training to take formal proficiency tests and, therefore, the service did not have language proficiency data for these marines. By not capturing information within service-level training and personnel systems on the training that general purpose forces have completed and the language proficiency gained from training, the Army and Marine Corps do not have the information they need to effectively leverage the language and culture knowledge and skills of these forces when making individual assignments and assessing future operational needs. The Army and Marine Corps have not developed plans to sustain language skills already acquired through predeployment training. The services have made considerable investments to provide some service members with extensive predeployment language training. For example, as of July 2011, over 800 soldiers have completed about 16 weeks of Afghan language training since 2010 at a cost of about $12 million. DOD and service guidance address the need to sustain language skills and the DOD strategic plan for language, regional, and culture skills calls for the services to build on existing language skills for future needs. However, we found that the services had not yet determined which service members require follow-on language training to sustain skills, the amount of training required, or appropriate mechanisms to deliver the training. Although informal follow-on training programs were available to sustain language skills, such as computer-based training, these programs were voluntary. In the absence of formal sustainment training programs to maintain and build upon service members' language skills, the Army and Marine Corps may miss opportunities to capitalize on the investments they have already made to provide predeployment language training for ongoing operations. GAO made recommendations intended to improve the availability of information on training completion and proficiency and help DOD plan for sustainment training. DOD generally agreed with the recommendations, but stated that the definition of significant language training was not intended to describe training for initial skills. However, DOD noted that current guidance does not preclude language proficiency testing at this stage.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To capitalize on the investments in time and resources made in providing language training to service members, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of the Navy, in consultation with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, to determine which soldiers and marines with language skills require follow-on training, the amount of training required, and appropriate mechanisms for delivering the training, and make any adjustments to training programs that may be needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Navy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Marine Corps has determined a sustainment training program. Marine Corps Requirements Oversight Council Decision Memorandum 38-2012, signed in May 2012, directed the full implementation of the Regional, Culture, and Language Familiarization Program, a career length education program for all Marines in the ranks of sergeant and above, and makes completion of each rank-appropriate educational block a requirement in order for an individual to be considered complete for professional military education in grade. Additionally, according to Marine Corps Administrative Message 619/12, Implementation of the Regional, Culture, and Language Familiarization Program, signed in October 2012, the program develops and sustains an operational language, regional, and cultural capability in career marines across the total force.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Navy, in consultation with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, to administer formal tests to marines completing a significant language training event using DOD's agreed-upon method to measure proficiency, and ensure the results of these tests are documented in marines' personnel records within the Marine Corps Total Force System.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2012, according to the DODIG, the Marine Corps began issuing formal tests (the Very Low Range Defense Language Proficiency Test or an Oral Proficiency Interview to select the General Purpose Forces Marines who complete significant language training during the predeployment training, and documenting any proficiency in the Marine Corps Total Force System. We are awaiting documentation to confirm the Marine Corps actions.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Navy, in consultation with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, to designate which training and/or personnel systems the Marine Corps should use to document the completion of marines' language and culture training.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2011, the Marine Corps affirmed in a comprehensive briefing to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs on the findings and recommendations outlined in GAO-12-50, that the Marine Corps would track validated language proficiency, as measured on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale by a Defense Language Proficiency Test or Oral Proficiency Interview, via the Marine Corps Total Force System and that the Marine Corps Training Information Management System would be the mechanism to document and track institutional, unit, and individual training, to include language and culture training received by the General Purpose Forces via the Marine Corps Regional, Culture, and Language Familiarization program, predeployment training, and other venues.

    Recommendation: To provide decision makers with greater visibility on the language and culture knowledge and skills of Army and Marine Corps general purpose forces that could inform force management processes, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Army to document the language proficiency for soldiers completing predeployment language training within the Digital Training Management System and the Army Training Requirements and Resources System.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: According to DODIG, the Army modified input and graduate functions of the Army Training Requirements and Resources System to require a proficiency score for Language Culture Training Courses and the capability for reports to be produced by the system to track and analyze language proficiency scores. We are awaiting documentation to confirm these Army actions and to provide input on any actions that have been taken to also document language proficiency in DTMS as we recommended.

    Recommendation: To provide decision makers with greater visibility on the language and culture knowledge and skills of Army and Marine Corps general purpose forces that could inform force management processes, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Army to establish clearly defined data fields for all mandatory language and culture training tasks within the Digital Training Management System and update Digital Training Management System records for soldiers who completed training prior to these fields being established.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: According to DODIG, in the first quarter of fiscal year 2012, data fields were added to the Digital Training Management System that could be used to capture individual completion of culturally based language training courses. We are awaiting documentation to confirm these actions and to provide input on any actions that have been taken to update the records for soldiers who completed the training prior to these fields being established as we recommended.

    Recommendation: To capitalize on the investments in time and resources made in providing language training to service members, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of the Navy, in consultation with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, to determine which soldiers and marines with language skills require follow-on training, the amount of training required, and appropriate mechanisms for delivering the training, and make any adjustments to training programs that may be needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Army

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Army has determined a sustainment training program consisting of live instructors for select general purpose force soldiers and recommends the completion of Headstart2 , an online program that focuses on basic communication as well as military topics such as public safety and medical situations.

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